Chris Robinson @crmusicwriter

mostly music, sometimes books


Last Batch of Favorites of 2014 & Thoughts on the NPR Poll

Happy 2015 folks. Even though the new year is already a few days old there’s already more than a few excellent releases to look forward to in 2015. I’m particularly stoked about the live album from Jack DeJohnette/Roscoe Mitchell/Henry Threadgill/Muhal Richard Abrams/Larry Gray that is coming out on ECM shortly. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

What follows is my last bit of shout outs for some great albums from 2014, along with a few observations about this year’s NPR Jazz Critics Poll.

As in previous years there were something like 700 albums that received votes. Wow, that’s a lot of music. Maybe too much. Whereas in previous years I had estimated I heard something like 250 of them, this year I only heard about 80 (yes, I counted, kind of sad). Chalk up my relative lack of knowledge of 2014 releases to finishing my dissertation, finding a job, moving halfway across the country, getting married, etc. But, 80 of 700 isn’t bad. Especially considering there were a bunch more I heard – many of which I really enjoyed – that didn’t receive a vote at all.

First, about the Top 10: Had I voted I think my ballot would have been more similar to the Top 10 than my ballot from the past. This is to say, I was a little surprised (and happy) to see the results. I was shocked to see Steve Lehman and Wadado Leo Smith take the top two spots. Not because they aren’t great, but because they are both fairly out there – both are well deserving of the honor. Ambrose Akinmusire’s album was one of the heaviest and emotionally deep records I heard this year, and I absolutely loved Marc Ribot’s live Vanguard Set. I’m still digesting the Mark Turner album, but it would have been a contender had I voted. And while the latest installment of Sonny’s Roadshows series wouldn’t have been anywhere near my list, I felt it was the strongest of his Roadshows releases to date – his 8 minute solo cadenza is pure magic. I was less taken with Jason Moran’s and Brian Blade’s albums, but hey, if anything is clear from this year’s results, it doesn’t take much consensus to make the Top 10: Jane Ira Bloom’s gorgeous ballads album only appeared on just over 10% of the ballots to place. A diverse set of ballots indeed.

There were several albums in my 2014 favorites list that I have written about that didn’t receive a single vote, which I was a little surprised to see. Notable examples include Ben Flock’s Battle Mountain and Clarence Penn’s new set of Monk interpretations (I’m still surprised at how he was able to make “In Walked Bud” sexy).

And then there were several albums which I haven’t written about that are on my Favorites of 2014 list that I was surprised to see didn’t get a single nod. Three of them include:

Camille Thurman, Origins (Hot Tone Music) – I had really hoped this album would have got more recognition, as Thurman is a fabulous tenor and soprano player with her own voice and sound. She occasionally slightly hints at the avant-garde tenor tradition (although I can’t exactly quite nail down how) in her primarily straightahead/post-bop approach. When I put this album on I rarely get past the opening track “Forward Motion” because I just keep hitting repeat. It’s a tenor/bass/drums cut, with bassist Corcoran Holt and drummer Rudy Royston, and it sounds just like its title. Thurman is also a fine singer – she mixes a slight gospel sound with nimble bebop phrasing to great effect. If anything, Origins shows that Thurman should be talked about with the same level of praise as other young saxophonists. It’s a really good album.

Fred Frith & John Butcher, The Natural Order (Northern Spy) – A fully improvised guitar and saxophone set. Crunchy, angular, skronky. At times it sounds like the taste of blood in your mouth (One track is called “The Welts, The Squeaks, The Belts, The Shrieks”). While at others it verges on almost quiet introspection – not so far as to be ambient, but there are definitely spaces where Frith and Butcher explore the nooks and crannies. It’s not balls-out all the time, but when it is, lookout.

3ish, Events (JCR) – Originally from Los Angeles, and now based out of Kansas City, Matt Otto is one of my favorite tenor players. Rounding out this leaderless trio is bassist Ryan McGillicuddy and drummer Jason Harnell (It expands to a quartet on two tracks with Phil O’Connor joining on bass clarinet).  Events is just a simply gorgeous album: understated, unabashedly lyrical, natural, laid back, and effortless. Otto has a dry, light sound, and his approach is slightly reminiscent of Warne Marsh and other West Coast saxophonists. He strings lengthy lines together at will, but no matter how complex his melodies get, he never overplays or shows off. McGillicuddy and Harnell are just as tasteful, musical, and mature. Nothing 3ish plays is more than it has to be – everything is just right. A damn near perfect album.


So there it is, and even though I have a lot more to say about individual albums from 2014 – and am still working on reviews of some of them – my work on my favorites of the year is over, and it’s time to start looking forward to the future.

2 responses to “Last Batch of Favorites of 2014 & Thoughts on the NPR Poll”

  1. Thanks for sharing. How do you manage to hear so many records? Do you get them sent by the record companies or do you buy them all? And when you say “have listened to”, how many times of going through the record is this? Seems to me that you spend all of your freetime on listening to Jazz records, or am I wrong?

    1. Thanks for reading – most of the albums are sent to me by labels and publicists. I still buy a few new albums though. I buy a lot of old records. And I listen to music of all genres all the time – in the car, at work, at home. I listen to a lot. In general everything I write about I’ve listened to at least three or four times, and I’d guess there are at least another 50-75 new albums I heard this year that didn’t get a vote in the NPR critics poll. Too much music, not enough time…

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